Thursday, November 19, 2015

Skeletons Of Jewish Victims Of Inquisition Discovered In Ancient Portuguese Trash Heap

Archaeologists undertaking routine excavations in Évora, Portugal, in advance of construction did not expect to find the remains of a dozen victims of the Inquisition. But both the bodies and the documentary evidence they found revealed that the men and women, likely convicted of practicing Judaism, were unceremoniously dumped outside the Inquisition Court along with regular garbage.

Writing in the latest issue of the  Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, archaeologists Bruno Magalhães, Teresa Matos Fernandes, and Ana Luísa Santos of the University of Coimbra detail the historical background of the Inquisition Court and its records, along with the archaeological findings of the skeletons themselves, which included 12 complete adults and a thousand bones from another 16 people.

Based on the structural plans of the Portuguese Inquisition architect Matheus de Couto, the archaeologists knew the bodies were found in the cleaning yard or trash dump of the jail associated with the Inquisition Court at Évora. These plans helped them narrow the date of use of the yard to between 1568-1634. Historical records also showed that at least 87 people died in the prison during that time and that many of them were dumped into the cleaning yard.

Magalhães and colleagues found the dozen complete skeletons – three male and nine female – in a wide variety of orientations and positions. More importantly, “the sediment surrounding the skeletons is indistinguishable from the household waste layer where they were placed, suggesting that the bodies were deposited directly in the dump,” the authors write.

The Portuguese version of the Inquisition is not as well known as the Spanish, but it was similar in method and reasoning. While the Roman Catholic Church and Papacy tried to fight heresy across Europe and the Middle East starting in the 12th century, Portugal did not establish an Inquisition until 1536, after yielding to pressure from neighboring Spain.

A court to try heretics under the Inquisition was set up at Évora, followed by later courts in Lisbon, Coimbra, and Porto, in order to ensure the population had purity of Catholic faith and discipline in religious beliefs and behaviors. Some of the main transgressions the Portuguese Inquisition judged people on included practicing Judaism, Protestantism, Islam, or witchcraft; bigamy; sodomy; and other blasphemies. They used techniques like strappado (suspension by the arms) and potro (the rack) to extract confessions.

While Magalhães and colleagues do not report any evidence of torture on the bones of the 12 women and men from the jail cleaning yard, they note that terrible living conditions in Inquisition jails “often led to the prisoner’s death, as shown in several individual records of the Évora Inquisition.” But what was done with the bodies of heretics when they died in jail?

During the Inquisition, convicted heretics were denied proper funerals. According to Catholic tradition, burials involved placement face-up with the head to the west.  Some of the bodies that Magalhães and colleagues found were face-up but others were face-down and some were lying on their side. Heads pointed in all directions. While face-down burials have been found in cases of suspected witchcraft and side-lying burials are consistent with some Islamic traditions, the researchers found that all of the people were tossed into the dump rather than being placed there with a purposeful orientation.

“ These are individuals who were left to rot in the religious court dump . In this way, the individuals from the Jail Cleaning Yard were not buried but discarded,” the authors suggest. “The purpose for the improper treatment of the deceased was not only punishing their body but mostly to weaken and destroy their soul, due to their perceived religious deviations.”

This research is the first to attempt to correlate skeletal remains and historical records of specific Inquisition prisoners. The jail dump could not be completely excavated, though, so the archaeologists cannot say for sure which skeletons matched which records, or whom the extraneous bones were from. But the dozens of people shown in the Évora Inquisition Court jail records were mostly accused of secretly practicing Judaism.  It is likely that these 12 women and men came to an ignominious end for the simple reason that they were not Catholic.

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “Skeletons Of Jewish Victims Of Inquisition Discovered In Ancient Portuguese Trash Heap”. Forbes. Posted: August 18, 2015. Available online:

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